Consumer Wise: Airline passengers: Know your rights

By Angie Moreschi, Reporter
Last Updated: Tuesday, April 18, 2017, 9:52 AM EDT

The startling video of a United Airlines passenger being dragged off a plane left many outraged and ignited a firestorm of criticism against all airlines.

  • When consumer purchase airline tickets, they agree to contract
  • Airlines required by law to ask for volunteers first
  • Airlines must compensate flyers bumped involuntarily

“The airlines for too long have mistreated the patrons. The people who fly on the airlines and who give them business,” said Jan Brown, a frequent traveler and airline customer.

Hassles of Getting Bumped

Brown was flying US Airways-American a few years ago, when her flight home to Tampa from Mexico was running late. It was a rush when she landed in Phoenix to make her connection, but she and her husband made it to the gate with 25 minutes to spare. She was relieved and thought everything was fine, until they went to board.

“They called our group. We walked up. We handed them the tickets and we were told they were invalid. I said, ‘What is invalid? Here’s our ticket. We just got off a plane from Mexico.’ And they said, ‘Oh no, we gave your seats to somebody else.”

Just like the United passenger, she and her husband were bumped, and they weren’t even given any compensation at the time; not even a meal voucher.

“I was appalled. I was frustrated and I was angry at the way we were treated.”

(Click HERE to hear Jan tell the story of her experience and find out what happened.)

Reasons for Bumping

U.S. Airlines bumped some 40,000 passengers last year—not counting those who volunteered. Reasons varied from overbooking to assuming you won’t show up to wearing an outfit deemed “inappropriate clothing.” Whatever the reason, there’s often very little you can do about being involuntarily chosen to leave a flight.

It turns out we all agree to a contract with the airline when we buy a ticket. Yes, the small print. It’s called a Contract of Carriage and can be found on each airline’s website.

Who Gets Bumped?

Airlines are required by law to ask for volunteers, first, before bumping passengers. Generally, they offer compensation that can vary from vouchers to gift cards to cash.

If there are no volunteers, each airline has its own approach on who gets kicked off first. Most give priority for staying on a flight to passengers with disabilities and minors traveling alone.

After that, many use the “last on/first off” rule, and also consider things like:
• The price you paid for a ticket—cheaper tickets get bumped first
• Whether getting bumped will impact other flights you have to catch
• Frequent flier status

Entitled to Compensation

If no passengers volunteer to leave a flight, federal rules kick in for the airlines. They must compensate you with up to $1350 per passenger, if you are involuntarily bumped.

The amount is based on the cost of your ticket and how long it takes them to get you to your destination.

According to the Department of Transportation, if you arrive at your destination beyond:
• One to two hours after your original landing time on a domestic flight, you'll get 200 percent of the cost of your ticket, up to $675.
• Two or more hours beyond your original landing time on domestic flights gets you 400 percent of the cost of your ticket, up to $1350.
• One to four hours beyond your original landing time on an international itinerary will get you 200 percent of the cost of your ticket, up to $675.
• Four hours or more beyond your original landing time on international flights will net you 400 percent of the cost of your ticket, up to $1350.
• Passengers using frequent flyer award tickets can cash in based on the lowest amount paid for the airfare.

It is a negotiation. So you can try to ask for more money or upgrades.

Delta Airlines is already responding to the fall-out from the United Airlines crisis—by increasing the maximum amount of compensation it offers to bumped passengers from $1350 to $10,000.

Be Persistent

After Jan Brown was bumped from the US Airways-American flight without being offered compensation, she wrote a letter of complaint. In response, the airline offered her and her husband a $100 voucher each, but they were not satisfied. They wrote more letters, emails and made phone calls to the Platinum desk, because they were frequent fliers. Finally, after two months of complaining, US Airways/American increased the offer of compensation.

“They bumped up our vouchers from $100 each to $200 each, towards the purchase of another ticket,” Brown said, still disgusted by how they were treated.

Brown says the vouchers were not nearly enough to cover the inconvenience and increased cost of parking at the airport and boarding their dog for an extra day.

She believes airlines, overall, have shown a pattern of disregard for their customers.

“People should be treated with respect,” she said, ‘I hope the legislature changes it, so the patrons have more rights.”

Click here to read the Airline Passengers Bill of Rights.